What is A Very Murray Christmas? Is it a postmodern take on those old-school Perry Como and Bing Crosby Christmas specials? A Sofia Coppola short film that happens to feature Miley Cyrus singing “Silent Night”? A lark of a seasonal variety hour best appreciated after a few glugs of spiked egg nog?
The special, which premieres on Netflix this Friday, is all of those things, and at least one or two more, too. This hour of yuletide cheer — co-written by Murray, Coppola, and Mitch Glazer, who wrote the Murray’s Scrooged and this year’s Rock the Kasbah — is a low-key, meandering mini-movie in which the melancholy sits right beside the merry. Until its third act — a dream sequence version of a traditional holiday special in which Cyrus and George Clooney, complete with tux and martini shaker, join the party — the spirit of the whole thing feels less “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and more “Fairytale of New York.” That Pogues/Kirsty MacColl holiday gem even gets covered by Murray, Jenny Lewis, David “Buster Poindexter” Johansen, and others in lovely, spirited fashion, as do other songs both conventional and decidedly not. Quick: Name another Christmas special in which Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw the Light” plays a key musical role. Yeah, I couldn’t either.
A Very Murray Christmas, which deserves to exist for the sake of its title alone, is very Murray, but it’s more understated, Wes Anderson-era Murray than, say, madcap, Caddyshack Murray. Even when our star is in freak-out mode, as he is early-on when his live Christmas cabaret at New York’s Carlyle Hotel gets hijacked by a blizzard and a black-out, his dial is turned to a lower setting. After a few drinks at the bar and a few sing-alongs by the piano with Paul Shaffer and a cadre of celebrities pretending not to be famous — including Rashida Jones, Murray’s Rushmore co-star Jason Schwartzman, singer Jenny Lewis and Maya Rudolph — Murray gets obliterated enough to pass out and imagine a Christmas gone full-Clooney-and-Cyrus.
If the notion of Murray stuck in a hotel evokes memories of Lost in Translation, that’s understandable since Coppola, who directed that film, runs the behind-the-camera show here. It’s also seemingly intentional. Much of what transpires in A Very Murray Christmas feels like a deliberately meta journey through the former SNLer’s career and evolving public persona. “I’m the Ghost of Christmas Present,” he says at one point, a comment that, coupled with the presence of Johansen, immediately calls to mind Scrooged. When Murray attempts to comfort a bride, played by Jones, whose wedding has been ruined, he says, “You look like you need to have your photograph taken with me. I’ve noticed that cheers people up,” an obvious nod to his reputation as a serial, and always welcome, party crasher. When Michael Cera, as a sleazy manager attempting to sign Murray, calls Clooney a has-been based on his work in Monuments Men, Murray quickly reminds him: “I was in that.”
If that, coupled with the chumminess of so many bold-facers caroling together, sounds a little too inside Hollywood, A Very Murray Christmas mostly overcomes that vibe by keeping things loose and improvisational. Just when you think the whole thing is dragging a bit, out pops a surprise, like Murray tugging on the ears of Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars, Coppola’s husband, as he sings lead on a cover of “(You’ll Never Be) Alone on Christmas Day,” or Rudolph knocking a version of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” over the left field wall and out of the park, or Lewis and Murray riffing their way through “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in a way that makes it sound more fun and elegant than creepy and stalkery. Oh, and by the way: Did you know that what you really wanted for Christmas was George Clooney, popping out from behind a Christmas tree while crooning, “Santa Claus wants some lovin'”? Of course you did. In our hearts, all of us have always wanted that, and A Very Murray Christmas finally gives us that gift.
As it turns out, the Bill Murray version of a Christmas special isn’t particularly hilarious or action-packed. It’s a lot like our own idealized notions of the holiday season: It starts with a bunch of plans that go awry, and then we wind up at a bar on Christmas Eve, drinking too much with people we love while listening to songs we’ve known forever. And in the wee hours of the morning, we pass out as visions of that elusive perfect Christmas, the one with Cyrus, kick lines and Clooney, dance in our heads.